When a team is plagued by inconsistency, as Arsenal is at the moment, it is natural that our minds turn to players that are not involved for answers. We can see them as a panacea. This psychology is present in the popularity of transfer rumours too, in the imagination of the fan base, the new signing is the white knight sent to propel our team up the league and onward to glory. The hypothetical future, much like the sepia toned past, is a safe space for dreaming.
Players such as Joel Campbell and Lucas Perez have become feted in recent seasons, as Arsene Wenger desperately tries to shock his team into some kind of consistent function. Often, I think the potential boon of reintroducing out of favour squad players is overstated, so it is with a little hesitation that I put forward my case for Theo Walcott to be phased back into contention for the remainder of this season.
I don’t think I ever imagined that the marginalisation of Walcott would cause me anything other than sweet relief. He has extended his Arsenal tenure by felicity. Key contracts have come up for him at opportune moments. In 2012-13, I think Arsene Wenger finally acquiesced to his wage and positional demands purely for PR reasons.
Having haemorrhaged van Persie, Song, Nasri and Fabregas in an 18 month period, Walcott had Arsenal over a barrel with regards to his own contract and both he and the club knew it. At the end of the 2014-15 season, Walcott fell out of favour, but injury to Welbeck and another of Giroud’s fatigue induced lulls saw him finish the season as a viable central striker, which, together with a depressed striker market, persuaded Arsene to extend his contract once more.
Of course, a few months later, after years of agitation, Walcott decided he no longer wanted to play at centre forward after all. He has fallen in and out of favour ever since, but this season, Arsene appears to have decided to stop picking at the Theo scab once and for all. Especially as the player has no role to speak of in the new-fangled 3421 system.
The 3 at the back formation always felt temporary, yet another set of jump cables for a manager struggling to get the engine purring. He now switches between a back 3 and 4. So here’s the rub; when Arsenal opt for a back four, which usually necessitates the use of a pair of wide forwards, I think Theo has a valuable role to play.
Walcott has always operated best in lithe, mobile front 3s. At the beginning of last season, the combination of Walcott, Iwobi and Alexis saw the Gunners mount an unbeaten run of 19 games. Walcott scored 19 goals last season, most of them in that period. He and Alexis have brought the best from one another due to their differences.
Alexis bounds after the ball like one of his golden retrievers might chase a tennis ball into a river. Walcott is the opposite, he wants absolutely nothing to do with the ball until he is in a position to either score or make a goal. Sanchez is pretty much always looking to make that killer pass. This tendency can be frustrating of course, but I think our (understandable) frustration with the Chilean’s profligacy has caused us to underrate his creative game.
One of his favourite passes this season has been a kind of lateral cross-field ball to Bellerin on the right hand side. The Spaniard’s form has been hampered by a complete lack of anyone to combine with on the right. Most of the time Bellerin needs a telescope to pick out his nearest teammate, which means he often has to reluctantly chop back inside and play a conservative pass. Walcott’s presence at right-wing forward could give him the companionship he has so desperately lacked.
The Gunners have struggled to manoeuvre their way to the by-line in recent weeks as a result. This is an area both Walcott and Bellerin like to attack. Alexandre Lacazette has also cut a lonesome figure upfront. He might have imagined plundering more booty in an Arsenal shirt, but instead, he has kind of become an unwitting decoy upfront, attracting packs of baying defenders to his shirt tails.
It’s no coincidence that the Frenchman’s goals have completely dried up in Ramsey’s absence. The Welshman’s ‘third man’ runs help Lacazette to find space. Lacazette enjoyed playing with Danny Welbeck earlier this season because Welbeck operated more like a second striker, which took some of the glare away from the summer signing from Lyon.
Lacazette’s decoy role has not been entirely fruitless. His assist for Özil against Liverpool is a case in point, as was Alexis’ brace at Selhurst Park last week. But it’s not difficult to see Walcott providing a foil for Lacazette in the way Welbeck managed earlier in the campaign. He can continue his impressive link play, but with Walcott also occupying the penalty area, we might be able to juice more goals out of him too.
Recently, Arsene has crammed Xhaka, Wilshere, Iwobi and Özil into the same team. I think the aim has been to encourage Arsenal to control games through possession. There is no viable Ramsey replica in the squad, so without his powerful off ball running, Arsene has gone for greater technical security. I also think that Wenger is trying to assuage Alexis’ temptation to drop deep by squeezing a collection of ball players into the team behind him.
While every midfield should aspire to fluidity, it has looked a little too much like freeform jazz. I get the feeling that the roles and responsibilities of each player have overlapped too much. But it’s also a quartet of players that don’t look to break in behind opposition defences, which has made it easier for massed ranks of defenders to marshal Arsenal’s efforts. Again, you can understand how playing Walcott instead of, say, Iwobi might add a much needed pinch of spice to the mixture.
The lopsided diamond of Iwobi, Xhaka, Wilshere and Özil looks as though it suffers from a collective identity crisis. But Walcott does not suffer from this sense of existential torpor. Play him on the right hand side of the attack and he will always offer the same outlet. His end product has not always been consistent and sometimes he plays like he has his boots on the wrong feet. But I think the predictability of his positioning could be useful in an otherwise shapeless, hotch potch of a team.
I entirely understand why Arsenal fans have become weary of Theo Walcott. I have too. He is the same player with the same strengths and the same flaws as ever. That he has made us collectively so bored is, in itself, an achievement because he is actually a fascinating and unpredictable footballer. He reminds me a little of Marouane Fellaini in that he is just as likely to win you a big game as he is to slip on a banana skin and end up face first in a custard pie.
I do not think that the club should entertain any thought of extending Walcott’s contract and the Theo and Arsenal story should come to an end soon for the good of both parties. However, I just cannot see the midfield or the defence significantly improving before the end of this campaign. The Gunners’ best chance of getting into the top 4 is to improve their artillery going forward and make themselves a more dangerous attacking force.
In a 3421, Walcott is about as much use as an inflatable dartboard. But as a wide forward, he still has the sort of end product that Welbeck and Iwobi have struggled to provide in an Arsenal team that lacks reliable goalscorers. Even if only from the bench, I believe Walcott can help the team eke a little more from the likes of Lacazette, Alexis and Hector Bellerin, all of whom are capable of increased output in a more favourable team dynamic.
I don’t think I have the enthusiasm for another volume in the Walcott Arsenal opus, but maybe one last chapter wouldn’t hurt.